MANASSAS PARK, Va., April 24, 2002 (Assoociated Press) - Cuban-Americans are more likely than Mexican-Americans to own their homes. Puerto Ricans tend to rent rather than buy.

Regardless of their background, though, overall homeownership rates for Hispanics rose in America during the economic prosperity of the 1990s, census data show.

The rates still lag behind the average for all Americans.

"In the last three, four years, it's grown a lot. There are cheap homes here," said Jose Pineda, who immigrated from El Salvador in 1981. He now co-owns a restaurant in this Washington suburb and owns a town home in a development 20 minutes away.

The Hispanic rate grew from 42 percent in 1990 to 46 percent, aided by more flexible lending practices and the good economy. Overall, 66 percent of all American homes were owned in 2000, up from 64 percent a decade earlier.

"There's no question there's a substantial increase in homeownership, but a very small base," said Roberto Suro, director of the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center research group.

"It's a classic example of the glass half-full and half-empty," Suro said.

"I grew up working on my dad's farm and in the sugarcane fields," Pineda said. "I never thought I'd have what I have now."

By comparison, 46 percent of homes headed by black people in 2000 were owned, along with 53 percent of Asian homes and 72 percent of white homes.

"Hispanic" is considered an ethnicity, not a race. People of Hispanic ethnicity can be of any race.

Owning a home is more prevalent in some Hispanic groups than in others. Much of that is due to where these different groups were settled.

The latest data, released Wednesday, included figures on the three largest Hispanic groups in the United States: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Most Cubans live in Florida, where housing prices and the cost of living are lower than in New York, which has a large Puerto Rican population.

Cubans, as a group, tend to be older, better educated and better paid, which lend themselves to homeownership.

Cubans also tend to have been in the United States longer, which has given them more time to build enough wealth to buy a home. Much of the most recent Hispanic immigrant waves have come from Mexico and central America.

Those effects play out in the statistics: Of the three largest Hispanic groups in the United States, 58 percent of homes nationwide headed by Cubans were owned, compared with 48 percent of Mexican homes and 35 percent of Puerto Rican homes.

In 1990, 51 percent of Cuban homes were owned, compared with 47 percent of Mexican homes and 26 percent of Puerto Rican homes.

Erika Hizel is director of housing programs for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. Mexican and Latin American families in the United States tend to have little access to credit, she said, in large part because of poorer financial backgrounds.

Some Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean groups tend to be overextend themselves on credit, possibly because they are more assimilated to American culture, she said.

Geographically, the largest gains in Hispanic homeownership were in immigrant gateway states with large Mexican populations including California, New Mexico and Texas, said Patrick Simmons, a demographer with the nonprofit Fannie Mae Foundation.

While predatory lending remains a big worry, Hizel said, "The primary barrier is not necessarily income and prices. The primary barrier is a lack of consumer-oriented help."

For more recent immigrants, making financial ends meet is the more immediate goal.

"I rent; I don't own," said an aproned Edgar Cruz as he stood behind the counter at the Hispanic-owned bakery where he works in Manassas. Cruz immigrated from Mexico three years ago.

"I came from Mexico for a job," he said.

Copyright 2002, The Associated Press